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Getting paid to write

When and how does a freelancer get paid to write?

Freelance writers "do it backwards" — you'll be paid to write after you've finished. When you make the sale, you'll be offered a contract for the piece. How much you'll be paid depends on what the work is, and who you're selling it to, plus how well known you are, and just how good your current project is.

Markets for fiction are very broad and tremendously varied. You can sell to conventional (print media) magazines and book publishers ... as a freelance writer you can also sell to electronic publishers, whose magazines appear online; you can get a contract from an ezine publisher; and in the early days of your career, you can submit to semi-professional publishers. More on this below.

Getting paid to write is one thing; getting paid well is a goal to aim for. Like any other art, the more famous you are (which, for a writer, comes down to how many people have read your material, liked it, and will pay good money to read more), and the better you perform, the more compensation you'll be offered.

In the early days, when you're completely unknown, your name can't be used by a publisher as a 'hook' to sell more copies. As you go on and make several sales, your name will become known. Readers who liked your previous work will be 'hooked' to buy a volume (anthology, magazine, or even a whole novel) in which you appear. You can get paid to write while you develop the name that will earn you the big checks later.

At the outset, however, you're the classic unknown quantity, and a publisher must take a risk on you. He or she is going to pay you money on a guess that readers will like your work. This guess is based on how well the staff at the publisher's office liked it. Did you hold their attention? Make them laugh, or cry? Did your story haunt them for days after they finished reading?

Other factors also come into play when a publisher is deciding whether to accept or reject the work of a freelance writer. How commercial is the piece you're submitting? How relevant is it to the publication? How original is it? And how well is it written?

If a piece is 100% relevant, addresses current, popular subjects, has a good streak of originality and is quite well written, you're in with a chance of achieving your first goal: actually get paid to write! And the first time you get a check (or cheque, depending on which part of the world you come from) is a thrill.

'Quite well written' means the editor will have to do some work on your writing to bring it up to full professional standard. If your material is original enough, relevant and commercial, he or she will happily spend several hours going over your story, with a line-by-line edit. (Several hours?! You echo, dismayed. Why is editing necessary? Who should do it — and when? Click here to learn more about what a professional edit entails, and why it can take some time.)

Naturally, the less editing you need, the less time an editor needs to spend on you prior to publishing ... the more time you save him, the more he'll approve of your material, and the more likely you are to get the sale ... in other words, get paid to write. So it behooves you to write very well! Which is the whole topic of our WRITE! segment.

How much you finally do get paid to write depends on how much of the editor's time you consumed, to get your work up to standard ... how relevant and commercial it is, and if you've made sales before (meaning, do readers know you? Will you attract them, and enhance sales for this publisher. Everyone's bottom line is financial, the publisher's as well as yours).

When you make your first sale, don't expect a vast check. If you're selling to high-end popular magazine, they'll adhere to their industry pay scales, which can be quite generous. But regional magazines, small papers, small(er) publishers, don't make the kind of sales the big boys (and girls) do, and can't pay as much.

Inquire about pay scales at the time you contact the editor, asking if he or she wants to read your work. Some very small magazine publishers might even pay in copies, not cash. Others might pay half a penny per word, or a penny per word, which is a bare fraction of the industry freelance rate. They should be up front about what they intend to pay; if you get the impression something is being hidden — it probably is.

It is practically impossible to put a dollar amount on how much you can expect to be paid to write, because the market is so wide and every publisher is different. For example, if you're submitting to an anthology, you might receive $20 - $500, depending on how long your story runs, how many copies the publisher intends to print, how well known you are, and how well patronized the genre is at this moment.

(For instance, science fiction is a quite popular genre. For a brand-new writer, a major SF publishing house might run 7,000 - 20,000. However, a small SF publishing house would have to 'play it safe' and might run 3,000 - 7,000. Actual dollar amounts for a freelancer's payment are impossible to predict; but you can see the margins you're working inside of.)

Publishers can be reluctant to disclose the size of the printrun, and this is their prerogative. Also, the printrun can be changed, for reasons of economic pressure. Something planned as 6,000 can ultimately be cut to 4,000, not because of the quality of your work, but for multiple other reasons of business. You may never know how exactly many copies were printed.

A small 'literary' publisher might run 3,000 copies of a book. A genre publisher might run five or six thousand for the first printrun, and if it goes well, organize a reprint, in which case, you get paid again ... without having to write a word. (Getting paid to write just got sweeter!) A publisher working in a larger niche might print 10,000 - 25,000. However, if you've been thinking all books are printed and sold in the tens of thousands, and the millions — this is only true of national bestsellers.

Suffice to say, as a freelance, you finish the work and then contact editors and offer it to them. Talk to the big guys first (they pay the best), but be happily surprised if you get a solicitation from them. Remember, everyone goes to them first (because they pay more!) so they're usually buried in queries and submissions. After the submission, and the acceptance, you'll receive a contract and a financial offer. Ah! The 'get paid to write' scenario is happening!

How much money is in the offing is another question. As a freelance, you're not compelled to accept a publisher's offer, but before you turn it down, consider several points. You're a newcomer, an unknown quantity. Your work might genuinely need some editing to get it up to full-professional standard for publication, and editing takes time. (You'll learn about this at firsthand as you read through our EDIT! segment.)

As Benjamin Franklin said, "Time is money," and an editor's time is especially precious. If your editor is willing to accept your work even though it needs to be polished, don't be insulted (much less angered) by the editing. It's actually a compliment. Your originality is being praised. You're being accepted for publication, even though your writing needs a lick of polish.

How much work will an editor do for you, and still publish you? It all depends on how much he or she wants the story! If you're good enough, and original enough, some editors will invest an astonishing amount of effort. (But you'll woo more editors, and get paid to write more often, if your work is already is wearing a shining coat of polish before you submit.)

Still, past a certain point, you could be asked for a rewrite, especially if the editing that's deemed necessary is more to do with 'story editing' than 'copy editing.' What's the difference? We get to the nitty-gritty part in the EDIT! segment.

So judge the offer a publisher makes you on its own merits, your merits, and the publisher's merits, before you turn it down. Are you selling to a small(er) publisher, who will do a small(ish) printrun? Are you still largely unknown? Does the work need some polishing? (The hardest question is, 'Am I good enough to be paid to write?' It's a tough one to answer for oneself.)

If the answers to some or all of these questions is 'yes', then work with your editors, not against them. The sale will get you a modest check and, much more importantly, it'll get you a professional credit. Your 'track record' has begun.

In the early days, it's not about earning a lot of money. Being paid to write is always nice, but the fat checks probably won't materialize until you're well known, and your work is so highly-polished at the time of submission, your editor had better put the cap back on his 'blue pen' before it dries up! (The traditional editor's tool is the blue pen, or pencil.)

Make your name in your genre with some good, solid early sales. These books or stories will be reviewed in the media (online or print; the Internet is equally valuable these days), and if your reviews are good ... they will be if you and your material are up to snuff! ... you can work your way up the freelance ladder surprisingly quickly, getting paid to write more often, and in larger amounts.

Then a day arrives when you find a publisher's letter in your mailbox. They're soliciting for material — actually asking you to send them something! Anything you submit following this letter has crossed the line from a freelance submission to a contractual relationship.

If you've been asked for a book, you can expect to get an advance on royalties. You'll be paid before you write! You might not be getting rich yet, but the pleasure you'll feel will be worth a million bucks. Getting paid to write is the bottom line for all writers. Being asked for a book is a ticket to our seventh heaven. And it happens, if you're good enough — and you will be.

On a closing note, your very earliest submissions might be made to semi-professional publications. Some pay; others don't. If you're drawing a blank elsewhere, can't get a solicitation to make a submission, don't close the door on these publishers. In the opening phases of your career, being paid to write is only half if the equation. You also need to learn, and build your credentials.

Semi-professional editors are often highly-skilled, and they publish for the sheer love of what they do. You can learn a lot, and some of the magazines, ezines and books coming out of these APA (Amateur Press Association) offices can be quite prestigious. You can start building your 'track record' long before you start to earn, and build up both your skills and experience along the way. You may not get paid to write in cold, hard cash, but experience and education are invaluable.

The very best APA publications are often seen by professional editors. An editor spots you in those pages, likes your material. When he or she receives your query letter, you're already a known quantity. You can sneak in through the door right there.

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